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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Yosef said to his brothers, "I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?" (45:3)

Yosef was revealing his true identity to his brothers. The first question that he asked after he identified himself was, "Ha'od avi chai?" "Is my father still alive?" One wonders at the timing of this question. During the time that Yosef's brothers appeared before him, they mentioned their elderly father several times. Why did Yosef suddenly ask a question whose answer was obvious? Each in his own way, the commentators suggest an interpretation of Yosef's question. In his popular "Maggid" series, Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates a poignant story that offers a new meaning the question, "Is my father still alive?"

The story is about a little boy by the name of Matisyahu, otherwise known as. He was a sad, withdrawn child, the product of a broken marriage. He heard nothing from his father. His mother had remarried quickly to a man who had limited time or patience for him. It was no wonder that the child was depressed and reclusive, maintaining few friendships. It is difficult to be friendly to a boy who is carrying the world's problems on his little shoulders. He attended a yeshivah only because his grandmother wanted him to have a religious education. He had a loving and caring rebbe who did everything to evoke a smile on Matisyahu's face. His rebbe would try to draw him into the classroom dialogue, to no avail. Matisyahu sat in the rear of the classroom in a world of his own.

Each week, the rebbe discussed the parsha narrative in a manner that included his students in the story. He would ask questions which elicited surprising responses from his young charges. On the week of Parashas Va'yigash, the rebbe was relating how Yosef and Yehudah disagreed concerning whether Binyamin should remain in Egypt. In the Torah narrative, Yehudah was beginning to lose patience with Yosef. He insisted that their aged father needed his son at home. He could not survive the loss of yet another son. He described how the Torah relates that Yosef could no longer contain himself; he could no longer continue to hide his identity from his brothers. He was prepared to reveal his true identity. "I am Yosef," he burst out "Is my father still alive?" he asked.

The rebbe turned to the class and asked, "Why did Yosef ask such a question? His brothers had just finished telling him that they must take Binyamin home in order to protect the health of their aged father. Yosef knew that his father was alive. Why did he ask an unnecessary question?" The students pondered the question. The rebbe scanned the room for answers. Suddenly, a little hand appeared at the rear of the room. The rebbe was taken aback to see that Matisyahu, the boy who was always quiet, who never raised his hand, wanted to say something. The rebbe, understandably shocked, looked at Matisyahu and asked, "Yes, Matisyahu, do you have an answer to the question?" "Yes. I think I do," he said. "I think I know what Yosef meant." "Would you care to share it with the class?" the rebbe inquired anxiously. "Yosef was well aware that his father was alive," Matisyahu began. "Yosef did not ask, 'Is your father alive?' He asked, 'Is my father alive?

Does he still think about me? Does he still care about me after all these years of separation? Does he still think of me as his son?' That's what Yosef meant when he asked, 'is my father still alive?'"

Tears welled up in the rebbe's eyes as he realized what Matisyahu was implying. As a result of his life experiences this child understood what the other students were unable to comprehend. Matisyahu was talking about Yosef, but he was actually referring to himself. He was describing the sad, frightened boy that sat alone in the back of the class. Matisyahu could well relate to the Yosef who was separated from his father at a young age. While this may not necessarily be the true meaning of Yosef's question, its message should be clear and thought-provoking. Children have feelings and sensitivities. Although they do not always readily express themselves, their eyes, their actions, and their lack of action tell the story. A perceptive parent or teacher can look at a child and sense his hurt, feel his grief, and reach out to him with gentleness and compassion. Only in this way can the true nature of the child begin to shine. The frightening aspect of this situation is what does or does not happen to those children whom no one notices.

And Yosef said to his brothers, I am Yosef….But his brothers could not answer because they felt disconcerted before him. (45:3)

In addressing the concept of tochachah, rebuke, the Midrash states, "Woe is to us on the Day of Judgement, woe is to us on the Day of Reproof. Yosef was the youngest of the tribes, but when he said, "I am Yosef," the brothers were overcome with shame at their misdeeds. When Hashem reveals Himself to each one of us announcing, " I am Hashem," we will certainly be unable to respond as a result of our humiliation. The words, "to each one of us," which in the vernacular of the Midrash is rendered, "l'fi mah shehu" "each one according to what he is," is a powerful statement. What does it mean? Does emphasizing the status of each individual make a difference in the rebuke?

Horav Shalom Schwadron, zl, takes a pragmatic approach towards explaining this Midrash. We find young men who spend their time in a yeshivah environment. Some learn more, while some learn less. There are some, however, who just fall through the "cracks". For some reason they just are not successful, never achieving the standard of scholarship which they are capable of attaining. They justify their limited accomplishment, attributing it to being on the short end of the Almighty's gift of acumen. Some people are bright, this particular individual does not perceive himself as one of them. Some have the ability to delve into the Torah's profundities, he just does not have the "keilim," utensils/achieves, necessary to achieve such a level of erudition. The individual's response is: I am not bright enough, astute enough, diligent enough.

The excuses would be almost admissible if the individual's lack of "ability" was consistent. Suddenly, when he assumes a position outside the parameters of the Torah educational network, he becomes a "macher," mover and shaker. He exhibits sheer brilliance in klal work, communal endeavors; his business acumen is sharp and penetrating; his devotion to, and diligence in, carrying out his projects is nothing short of incredible. What happened?

Indeed, this individual will have to give an explanation to a Higher authority. When he will comes to the Olam Ha'emes, the World of Truth, Olam Habah, he will be asked about this inconsistency. He will be questioned why his "head" was not able to handle the Torah study, but when it came to secular pursuits, he manifested capabilities beyond the scope of what he had previously demonstrated in the yeshivah. The answer is obvious: It is not his head; it is his heart. It is the ratzon ha'lev, the will of one's heart, that determines what his "head" will be capable of achieving. He simply does not want to learn! He would rather devote his time to other pursuits.

When we wonder what motivated his original response, what was there that suggested his "incapability" to make it in the Torah world, his answer would be: his friend, his classmate. He looked around and saw how well everyone else was performing, how smart they were, how diligent and dedicated they were. He decided that he was not as well-equipped as they to master Torah knowledge. He sought to be like them, and when he saw that his aspiration was not a reality, he gave up trying. Regrettably, too many of us want to be like someone else. Hashem wants us to achieve our own potential, not that of someone else. He will rebuke us "l'fi mah shehu", "each one according to what he is." We are not to compete with others, but only to be ourselves.

How does one go about maximizing his own potential? Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, draws the following picture. People attribute greater significance to the few mitzvos they perform, the little learning they do, the small amount of time they invest in acts of chesed, kindness, than they are really worth. Indeed, one may think that when the moment that he returns his soul to his Maker occurs, he will be greeted with "open arms", accorded great honor and seated "up front" in the place of honor. All this will be the result of his paltry observance; he is sadly mistaken. When he confronts the moment of truth, he will clearly see that he wasted a good part of his life on foolishness. How many of us determine the quota of time we can expend for Torah study and endeavor, only to wallow away so much of our precious time on frivolous preoccupation. During that time we could have earned valuable credits for a life of eternal bliss.

Horav Schwadron relates a famous story about the great gaon and Rosh HaYeshiva of Volozhin, the Netziv, zl. Upon completing his magnum opus, his commentary on the Sheiltos D'Rav Achai Gaon, he made a great feast and invited many scholars to join in his celebration. He explained the reason for this unusual display of joy: "When I was a young boy of nine years, I overheard my father and mother speaking about me," related the Netziv. 'What will be with our Naftalik?' his father asked. 'We have provided him with a number of the finest rebbeim, Torah teachers, to no avail. He just does not seem to be interested. Perhaps, we should teach him a trade.' When I heard this, the Netziv continued, I was heartbroken. My father was about to let me become a baal melachah, tradesman. How could this happen to me? I began to cry bitterly. I then made up my mind that nothing would stand in my way. I was going to study diligently and become a talmid chacham. This sefer is the fruit of my labor, the result of my studies." "Imagine," continued the Netziv, "had I not wept. What would have become of me? I would have become a tradesman. What is so bad about that? Let us say I would have become a tailor. I still would be observant; I would attend shul every day. I would even set aside time everyday to study Torah. In short, I would be an observant Jew, true to my heritage, devoted to Hashem. Is that so bad?

"Veritably, there is nothing wrong with such a scenario. When I would come up to Heaven, however, they would say to me, 'Naftali, Naftali, you were a good Jew. But was that your purpose in life? Were you placed on the world to become a tailor? Do you realize that with your acumen and ability you could have authored the Haamek Shaaloh on the Sheiltos? True, you lived a decent life, but did you achieve your potential?'

"Now you understand why, with the completion of this commentary I am overwhelmed with joy." Each individual is judged according to what he is and what he could and should have become. Horav Schwadron ends his thesis with a penetrating thought from the Alter, zl, m'Slabodka. The Alter was once standing by the window of his study when he motioned to his student Horav Aizik Sher, zl, to come over and look out the window. "Look out the window and see the large cemetery outside," the Alter said to Reb Aizik. "You might think that the cemetery is the large field situated at the outskirts of the city and that this is only a public street. You are wrong. There are people going back and forth-people with incredible potential for greatness in Torah. But, they were 'inspired' to choose another field of endeavor. Do you know what is written about such a person? 'Here lies the great saint and scholar, the eminent Rosh HaYeshiva etc.' This person could have achieved the greatest heights, but he did not. His epitaph accompanies him through the street. There is, however, one difference between the cemetery outside the city and the one in front of our eyes. There they bury dead people. Here they bury live ones." This is one story we might want to remember as we make decisions about our future and that of our children. What we decide today may one day come back to haunt us. So Yisrael set out with all he had and he came to Beer-Sheva, (45:28)

Yaakov Avinu was on his way to Egypt to finally be reunited with his long lost son, Yosef. Why did he stop in Beer-Sheva? It should not normally have been a part of his itinerary. The Midrash replies that Yaakov stopped to cut down cedar trees that had originally been planted by Avraham Avinu. Yaakov knew that one day Klal Yisrael would be liberated from Egypt, and they would build a Mishkan, Sanctuary, in the desert. These cedar trees would serve as the lumber for the Mishkan. What is the significance of these cedar trees and why was it crucial that they be the ones that were planted by Avraham Avinu?

Horav Eliyahu Schlesinger, Shlita, explains that people by nature attribute their success to their own endeavor, "kochi v'otzem yadi," "my power and my strong hand." "I did it without anyone's help" is the prevalent attitude.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

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